Day One: Mirador Las Torres
It took nearly our entire stay, but we finally escaped Punta Arenas for the breathtaking wilderness of Torres del Paine National Park. We found a small Airbnb in Puerto Natales to serve as our home base for three nights, busing into the park each morning and back each afternoon.
The three-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales revealed a landscape that seemed anything but Patagonian, with low, rolling hills populated by sheep and guanacos. By the time we reached town, we were transported to a picturesque mountain village. Our street was quiet and unassuming. Only a short walk to the waterfront, however, and we were enchanted.
After a brief and fleeting night of sleep, we woke early to catch the day’s first bus to the national park. We rode for two hours and had to hop out for another half hour to wait for everyone to register at the Lagua Amarga entry station. From the entrance, a small and speedy van whisked us to a cafeteria and shop that marked the starting point of the Mirador Las Torres trail… but not the trailhead. By the time we passed the Hotel Las Torres and were really underway, it was around 10 a.m. We read that the route can take an average of 8 hours, and we had only 9 remaining before our bus left, with or without us.
Paine Rating: 0
The scrubland at the base made for easy progress at first, and even the early steps boasted views ready-made for our cameras. But the trail started to climb. We’d looked at reviews of the Mirador, but eschewed calculating the precise mileage, preferring not to know exactly what we were in for.
The first half of the trail passed along a hillside and offered little shade. Coupled with the austral sun, we quickly shed our extra layers. Hikers who sunrised at the summit passed us headed in the other direction, which made us feel even further behind.
The trail was fairly crowded. The park sees barely 1/7 the visitors of Mt. Rainier in Washington, but there are also far fewer trails. Many named trails overlap the longer “W” or “O” circuits that command the most attention. But as distances added up, the groups spread out and we found plenty of solitude along the way.
At about the halfway point we reached the Chileno Refugio. We paused for a quick snack and to appreciate the local wildlife.
Paine Rating: 3
From there, we continued though forests that reminded us of the Pacific Northwest. Moss-covered trees and rocky streams cut across glacial valleys, all in the shadow of imposing cliffs of granite. The varying elevation teased us. Every easy, seductive step down would have to be painfully re-earned later.
We crossed the river a second time. The bridges seemed to be growing smaller and more rickety as we progressed. From here the trail ascended again.
Emerging from the shade, a massive boulder field lay before us. We scrambled up the path, which could now more accurately be described as a shallow creek. The water tumbling over the slippery rocks at all angles inspired our ankles to do the same, and our muscles began burning in resentment. We kept a pace that would allow us a moment of respite once we reached the top, but only a moment.
The grueling final kilometer almost hurt more mentally than physically as we watched our summit time evaporate over the 30+ minute scramble. At times, we took our eyes off finding our footing in the rubble to admire the distant ice-covered peaks. Our eyes had trouble adjusting to the dramatic shifts in perspective; we had no way to know if a peak was two miles away, or ten.
Paine Rating: 5
We stumbled into the Mirador – at last, the destination we’d been seeking. Massive granite monoliths soared above a beryl-colored lake. Mountains ringed us in, and the sky appeared endless.
We settled into a quiet and solitary spot, celebrating our victory with selfies and snacks.
We drank in the landscape as much as possible during our short stay – it might have to last a lifetime.
Shortly, the wind picked up and forced us back into our jackets. We bid a reluctant goodbye to the panoramas and started the long journey back down. The rockiest section was as difficult going down as it had been going up; even worse, our knees were growing increasingly wobbly.
Paine Rating: 6
As the trail segued from “one wrong move will end us” to “nothing we haven’t seen before,” we began to make better time. We grew confident we’d finish ahead of schedule and permitted ourself moments to appreciate smaller details on the way.
The day took every opportunity to remind us how much we’d missed hiking. This way of life has its perks, no doubt, but travel deals seldom grant access to such far-flung and wild spaces. Not to mention that our legs might not have burned so much with a little extra practice.
We ascended the last push on smooth trail, relieving us from the burden of dodging rocks and roots and allowing us to absorb the parting vistas. This coincidentally distracted from the increasing sensation that acid was dissolving our thighs.
The final segment of Kansas-flat ground was the most humbling, as each peaceful and innocent step flared into flaming agony for our rusty joints.
Paine Rating: 8
We made it back to Hotel Las Torres with time to spare to catch our return shuttle. The evening winds picked up, and we stopped envying those still on the mountains.
The trailhead kiosk was doing brisk business selling victory snacks, and we indulged in a well-earned celebration cerveza.
Headed toward the shuttle stop, we were surprised by a herd of horses passing by. On the way up we scoffed at the advertised $75 privilege of riding from Refugio Chileno on another creature’s legs, but now we fully comprehended that urge.
Our shuttle was due to arrive at 6 p.m., plenty early to make our 6:45 connection. But by 6:40, there was no shuttle and we (and the rest of the line) were getting antsy. It finally showed at 6:54 and dawdled with a full load for another 6 minutes after that, which left us pulling our hair. Luckily, the majority of our bus’s passengers were with us on that very shuttle, and the bus driver wisely elected to not leave with 3/4 of his seats empty.
We got back to Puerto Natales after 9. We shuffled stiffly to the grocery store for a quick supper’s worth of ingredients and tried to quiet our screaming muscles enough to sleep.
Day Two: Mirador Los Cuernos
We’d budgeted for sore legs after the Torres, but we didn’t anticipate just how little control we would be left with over our muscles. Descending the stairs in our apartment took minutes of concerted effort. Limping to the bus terminal for another 2-hour ride to Torres del Paine did not make for a happy morning.
We chose Mirador Los Cuernos for its relaxed difficulty and proximity to our bus’s other scheduled stop. Once we took care of entrance formalities, we rode on to Pudeto. Most of our fellow passengers were bound for the ferry to the “W,” but we had a simpler day planned: breakfast outside the cafeteria with a side of ibuprofen, a few reluctant stretches, and then off to the trailhead.
Paine Rating: 9
Were we sure we could handle this? We only had 8 hours to complete the 1 hour trail, after all. Once we were in motion, our joints reluctantly resigned themselves to complying with our demands.
The Salto Grande Waterfall inspired us to keep moving, and early previews of our destination sweetened the deal.
This hike was more of a ramble, though our overdramatic lower halves complained like we were doing two Mirador Las Torres back-to-back. Thankfully, the trail ran smooth and flat (though not always direct), freeing us to concentrate on the scenery.
We passed a beautiful sapphire lake on the way, stopping for a moment to explore the shoreline and stroll the black stone beach. Bleached tree skeletons, remnants of a human-caused wildfire, rimmed this part of the path.
Reaching the Mirador, our cramps and tightly ratcheted tendons finally relaxed. It was warm enough spend several hours here, fixing sandwiches, taking a break, and basking in our hard-won conquest. Other groups came and went while we enjoyed the silences in between. We listened to the distant, echoing crackle of calving glaciers or watched wind paint shifting, glimmering patterns across the lake. In a place few people will ever see, we felt privileged to have the time to pause and listen.
Paine Rating: 3
Like the day before, the wind suddenly and decisively picked up mid-afternoon. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
With airspeed increasing and mercury falling, we opted to head back to Pudeto. The waves were pushed around on the lakes, and we were pushed around on the land.
We found shelter in the cafeteria, which blunted the wait with wifi, coffee, and beer. We gazed through the broad windows and let the minutes drift away.
Paine Rating: 2
A ferry arrived, and suddenly we were no longer alone. Dozens of trekkers from more far-flung points in the park settled in around us.
This bus arrived on time and without incident. As the park receded from view, we consoled ourselves by comparing photos and reminiscing. We didn’t want the experience to end just yet. It turned out it didn’t; for days afterward every painful step reminded us that the Torres were still there, beyond our current horizon.
Paine Rating: 10